Reviews - and their purpose? - Alex Marchant

Reviews. They’re a new thing for me. Being on the receiving end, anyway.

Some authors don’t read them apparently. A. L. Kennedy, writing in The Guardian some years ago, said, ‘They emerge months, if not years after the book is done with, so they're not that much use to the author. If the book's a car crash, it's already happened and we've walked or crawled away long ago.’

Maybe that’s just traditionally published authors. It may be a different scenario for those of us who have published independently. After all, we’re told how important it is for sales for our books to have good reviews on Amazon and GoodReads, or from the many bloggers worldwide. We use snippets of them on social media, such as Facebook or Twitter, and in our blogs and websites as part of our never-ceasing promotion. A review is not just about helping readers find new books – it’s about authors actively helping them do that.

New books?

And, let’s be honest, a good review can be an enormous boost. If things aren’t going well, either personally or in terms of writing or selling, I find that a few enthusiastic words or sentences about these books that I nurtured for so long can turn my mood around. All that effort was worth it! This reader loved my book and took the time to let other people know! Maybe there is some point in continuing to write!

When my first book, The Order of the White Boar, was published last October, I was amazed that people enjoyed it enough to write reviews on Amazon, and even give it five stars. I’d had good feedback from readers before publishing, but in the main they were people I knew and who were well-disposed to me – and were likely to be kind, even if critical about various aspects of the writing. Many of my early post-publication reviewers were of course Ricardians, and therefore likely to be well-disposed to books that were more positive towards King Richard III than the traditional, Shakespearean-inspired view.

That man

But then along came reviews from people who neither knew me nor had previously had any particular view on King Richard – and such reviews were a particular pleasure. Especially those from children of the age at which the book is aimed (10+), or from older readers who were also writers, or who began to question what they thought they knew about King Richard as a result of reading the book.

His Grace King Richard rewarding children for their loyalty and hard work at Middleham Castle, 2018

With the publication in May of my second book, The King’s Man, worries about reviews returned, largely because it was a very different book – darker, not so tied to the original premise of a group of young friends having adventures.

I panicked for a moment when I saw that the very first review contained the words ‘disappointing’ and ‘devastating’ – before reminding myself I’d already seen that it gave the book five stars. The reviewer had been uncertain initially about my decision to change the trajectory of the career of the main character, Richard’s page Matthew, but then realized what I intended: to show Richard’s story from the outside. This is indeed as everyone has had to see the story over the past 500 years – but Matthew views it as someone who actually lived through those tumultuous times would have witnessed it, not as it has been handed to us on a plate as the ‘fait accompli’ of the Tudor version (which itself took more than 100 years to evolve into the Shakespearean story). The reviewer then said, ‘I noticed how clever and wise a move it was ... In sum, I couldn't be more pleased and amazed.’

Another viewer wrote, however, that the book was ‘more constrained by historical facts’, lamenting the decision to remove Matthew from Richard’s service, and gave the book my first rating lower than four stars.

Interestingly, these two reviews were on different Amazon sites, and I wondered whether, had the latter reviewer read the former, he would have rethought his view. (Or had he indeed ever finished the book, as no mention is made of any events after the first few chapters?) But, whatever the case, his point was one that had concerned me before publication – although the whole reason for the books was to tell the real story of King Richard as accurately as I could. (Though I did have a small wobble as I approached the final, fateful Battle of Bosworth ... and seriously considered going for the ‘alternative history’ approach and allowing Richard to win this time...)

Image may contain: one or more people, people riding horses, horse and outdoor
At Bosworth Medieval Festival this year, they're staging an 'enactment', not just a re-enactment: just for a change, the morning battle will be a 'what if?' What if King Richard III had won?

The former review gave me a huge boost – the latter a few doubts. Of course, as A. L. Kennedy said, there’s not much I can do about it now (even in the age of on-demand printing!) Will I take away some message from the latter? Probably. Will it affect the way I write the third book? Perhaps.

A question someone asked me at a recent event has also made me ponder. What sort of historical fiction do I write? His choice was between ‘like Bernard Cornwell or like Hilary Mantel’. 

Alex Marchant at Barnet Medieval Festival: Bernard Cornwell or Hilary Mantel? You decide...
It took a moment to realize what he meant. Do I write fiction set in historical times, or fictionalized historical events? The reviews made me think that perhaps the first book was more the former, the second more the latter – but neither is entirely one or the other. Perhaps that was where I went wrong – in not making a firm choice to do one or the other before I began....

And now I have to start the third book. (Happy readers keep asking when it will be published...) What do I do? Cornwell or Mantel? Listen to the reviewers? Or just go my own sweet way again?

PS. By a happy coincidence, just as I was writing this piece on reviews, I discovered that The Order has been chosen as a Discovered Diamond. That’s one review I’ll always be happy with!


Umberto Tosi said…
I enjoyed your informative review of reviews - and share many of your experiences and sentiments. Those of us who publish independently have the advantage of long "shelf life" - as do some small publishers - in that we don't have to go by book store timetables, with shelf-lives shorter than those of fruit flies. That makes long-after reviews more welcome. Congratulations on the fine reviews you've earned!
Griselda Heppel said…
And congratulations on your book being a Discovered Diamond! Though I'm not quite sure what that means... is this an Amazon phenomenon? Sounds as if it will raise the book's profile, which is always good news.

I'm delighted you're getting reviews direct from your readership, ie age 10+ as I've found that though children may love books, reviewing them is quite an effort, and since they can't have Amazon accounts until they are older, presumably it's the parents posting their children's reviews? Three cheers for that! As you say, while it's hugely encouraging to have good reviews from all readers, when you hear how much children themselves have enjoyed your book, that's really special.
Alex Marchant said…
Thank you Umberto and Griselda. It's one of those (many) subjects I'd not given much thought to until I embarked on this very interesting, but sometimes arduous journey of self-publication! It's a very different experience when you're on 'the other side', so to speak, isn't it?
The Discovered Diamond blog focuses in particular on indie-published historical fiction and can be found at - well, that's my review. I came across it through various Facebook groups - and it's rather nice as I get to use the logo! And you're right about the difficulty of getting children to review - I suspect either they have far better things to do (read more books, for example) or don't have the confidence to put their views down on paper. Mine have mostly been anecdotal, though I've also had a couple of lovely written ones - which unfortunately Amazon took down, I guess because they were posted by adults who were friends of mine on FB or honest that they were 'on behalf of...' But I still have the copies! As you say, it's particularly encouraging. Though I'm quaking at the thought of how the second book will be received by children - especially given something that happens right at the end.... I've already had one grandmother up in arms, telling me she can't given the book to her grand-daughter because she'll be upset, even though she loved the book herself :(
julia jones said…
very interesting -- and good luck

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